Merle Haggard Signs With Punk-Rock Record Company

Country Hall of Famer moves further from Music Row with deal for one album on Epitaph Records.

NASHVILLE — Country music veteran Merle Haggard — ever the individualist — has signed with California punk label Epitaph Records.

"It's a one-album deal," said Haggard, whose vast catalog includes some 70 albums. "We're finishing the album, and then we'll meet to discuss how to promote and market it."

With this deal, Haggard joins veteran country-music artists Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, who have often used small, independent labels to produce special projects.

Haggard's upcoming Epitaph release continues his pattern of keeping Nashville's Music Row at bay and recording without regard to commercial appeal. "[This album] is about my life. That's the only thing I know how to write about," Haggard said.

The as-yet-unnamed album will be released, Haggard said, when it's ready.

On his last major album last year, For the Records — 43 Legendary Hits, Haggard reworked several of his hallmark songs with such notable collaborators as Nelson, Jewel, Alabama and Brooks & Dunn. And his spoken-word album, Merle Haggard's My House of Memories: For the Record, from the book co-written with Tom Carter, garnered a 1999 Grammy nomination.

Haggard's iconic ascent — culminating in his 1994 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame — was far from a smooth run. The Bakersfield, Calif., native was performing in honky tonks at age 15 and serving time in San Quentin prison at 20. Then a string of successful Tally Records singles, including "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" (RealAudio excerpt), led to his signing with Capitol Records in 1965. That same year, Haggard released his debut album, Strangers.

He went on to join MCA Nashville's roster in 1976, switching to Epic Records in 1981 and, again, to Curb Records in 1990.

Haggard has vowed from the stage never again to sign with a Nashville label.

"People wonder where I was for the last 10 years. I was on Curb Records," Haggard said, when asked about his virtual disappearance from the country-music charts in the past decade.

Haggard's lack of recent play on country radio may be coming to an end. A new radio format introduced at the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville in March intends to woo male listeners, basing its programming on songs by Haggard, Nelson, Cash, Jennings and Hank Williams Jr. Not surprisingly, it's being referred to in the industry as the "testosterone format."

Still, Haggard has had his share of chart success, including dozens of #1 country hits that include "Mama Tried," "Okie From Muskogee"

(RealAudio excerpt) and "Swingin' Doors." The 1968 ballad "Today I Started Loving You Again," which he co-penned with then-wife Bonnie Owens, has been recorded by more than 400 artists.

"[He] is country music in its purest, rawest form, and at its peak," singer Emmylou Harris said. "You can drop the needle anywhere on any record he's done over the last 25 or 30 years and you're gonna hear something wonderful. And you'll know that it's Merle."